Beyond the binary: creating inclusive classes

LGBTQ and nonbinary individuals are effectively rendered invisible by curricula, says a local alum of Mount Holyoke College’s graduate teacher licensure program.

A wave of anti-trans laws recently introduced across the country underscores the discrimination transgender youth have long faced. Half of students who identified as trans before graduating high school said they’d been verbally attacked, and 25% said they’d been physically attacked, according to a 2015 survey. Nearly 20% of transgender and nonbinary youth have attempted suicide, according to a survey released this year.

When communities accept LGBTQ+ youth, they are less likely to attempt suicide. School communities can be an important site of acceptance, but in many classrooms, the queer and transgender experience is never acknowledged. Gender seems to be part of a binary system, and nonbinary individuals are effectively rendered invisible by curricula, says a local alum of Mount Holyoke College’s graduate teacher licensure program, who is a trans person using they/them pronouns. (The College is declining to name the person to protect their safety and privacy.)

“Invisibility is a way of cultivating shame and silence around being queer and trans,” they said. “There’s a negative feedback loop: If it’s not out in the open, it must be wrong.”

Today the alum is a seventh- and eighth-grade English Language Arts teacher determined to offer more inclusive curricula and support students of all gender identities. A 2021 graduate of the graduate program, they teach at a school in Massachusetts.

But the local alum is also working with the graduate program to ensure that soon-to-be professional teachers can create inclusive curricula and classrooms that make all students feel safe and visible. They guest lectured on the subject both this past semester and last year while also working as a teaching assistant for the program.

“Today’s classrooms are more diverse than ever before,” said Ruth Hornsby, assistant director of the College’s graduate teacher licensure programs. “We want all of our teacher candidates to leave our program with the skills and the tool kit to support all learners in K–12 classrooms.”

This educational territory has become politically charged in many parts of the country. Around a dozen U.S. states are now looking to follow the lead of Florida’s so-called “Don’t Say Gay” law, which bans teachers from discussing sexual orientation and gender identity in K–3 classrooms. For Hornsby and the alum, ensuring graduate students know how to create inclusive curricula and support queer and trans students has nothing to do with politics — it’s about being a good teacher. And it may save lives. 

“Those kids exist in classrooms, and teachers need to be prepared on every single front,” the alum said.

New teaching techniques

As an ELA teacher, they understand that bringing queer and trans themes and issues into humanities classes can seem more intuitive than doing so in science and math curricula. For example, the alum teaches “Close to Spider Man,” a short fiction collection by trans Canadian writer Ivan E. Coyote. But they are adamant that science, technology, engineering and math teachers can also evolve curricula through an additive approach that does not require redesigning lesson plans.

One approach for chemistry teachers: When explaining chromosomes, discuss intersex people, whose bodies fall outside the traditional male and female binary. More generally the alum suggests science and math teachers try to highlight trailblazers within a field who were queer or trans and create extra-credit assignments that center the voices of nonbinary scientists, mathematicians and researchers when possible.

But many of the techniques teachers can use to create a more inclusive classroom environment don’t relate to specific subject curricula. For example, ask students to share their preferred pronouns in beginning-of-the-year surveys and icebreaker activities, the alum said, and then ask again later in the school year, as some students’ gender identities may have changed.

“The language choices that we make have big impacts,” said the alum, suggesting that teachers practice using pronouns correctly. “But if you make a pronoun mistake, it’s OK — just apologize and move on.”

As a queer and trans person talking to Mount Holyoke College graduate students about why it’s important to pay attention to nonbinary experiences and students, the alum said it’s hard not to feel like they’re pushing an agenda. But one of the things this person loves about the graduate program is its grounding in social justice and emphasis on building trauma-informed classrooms.

“A lot of that comes down to making kids feel safe,” they said. “And one of the ways you can do that is by being inclusive of queer and trans kids in the room.”

Preparing for diverse schools

For Hornsby, the alum’s guest lectures dovetail with the College’s broader efforts to support LGBTQ+ and other marginalized youth and diversify the teaching workforce. The College’s Professional and Graduate Education program has worked on the Safe Schools Program for LGBTQ Students, a collaborative effort between the Massachusetts Commission on LGBTQ Youth and the state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. And the graduate teaching program has augmented the state assessment candidates must pass to become licensed with antibias and anti-racist components.

Since 2016 the program has also been actively working to diversify its students and the ranks of newly licensed teachers. The latest DESE data (from 2017 to 2018) indicates that only 14% of educator preparation students are people of color. At Mount Holyoke 32.6% of currently enrolled students in the graduate teacher licensure program identify as people of color. Workforce diversity efforts encompass race, sexuality and gender identity. The program works to place teachers into schools where they’ll feel safe and supported. In their final semester, each candidate is placed into a school for a teaching practicum.

“If a student identifies themselves as queer, trans or nonbinary, we work with them closely to find a placement,” Hornsby said. “It’s about feeling safe with students, parents and other teachers in the community. Our student teachers need to know that the school has their back.”

Hornsby and the alum note that integrating the queer and trans experience into classrooms may make some people uncomfortable.

“There are people for whom this is really challenging, and that’s part of the reason we wanted to do it,” Hornsby said. It’s about preparing teachers for increasingly diverse classrooms. “We want teachers to be prepared to help kids so that no one is excluded or minoritized in the classroom and all students feel safe and heard,” she said.

For the alum, the antidote to transphobia is visibility and openness. “By bringing it out into the open, we can tell the truth. If my kids gain understanding and empathy skills that they didn’t have before, then I did my job.”

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